Hungary's EU Presidency already risks being overshadowed by new media law - La Treizième Étoile: A blog on EU politics
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Hungary's EU Presidency already risks being overshadowed by new media law

Friday, 21 January 2011
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán presents the program of activities of the Hungarian presidency of the Council in the EP hemicycle on Wednesday 19th of January 2011 (Photo: European Parliament/Flickr)On January 1st 2011 Hungary assumed the rotating Presidency of the European Union - their first time since joining the bloc. But another event occurred that day that could potentially overshadow Hungary’s entire six-months in the spotlight in charge of the EU political agenda: a new media law came into force.

Under the act, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority has been created and has consequently gained substantial regulatory powers over the country’s domestic and international media outlets – including print, broadcast, and the internet. Since the body is to be staffed by members appointed by the government, it has effectively given control over the media’s coverage to Fidesz, the ruling centre-right political party.

According to the new law, the regulatory authority is able to block domestic access to international media content, a controlled media environment à la China, and also requires news content by print and broadcast media to be "balanced", although the authority itself will deem what is balanced and what is not. However, the aspect most damaging to the fabled notion of press freedom is a clause entitled "providing data" under which journalists are required to divulge their sources on demand.

Already ranked by Reporters sans Frontières in their latest Press Freedom Index as less ‘free’ than the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, Hungarian journalists, as you might expect have responded in disgust fearing they have further lost their rights to freedom of speech.

Accordingly, the leading daily newspaper, Népszabadság, marked the dawn of a "new era" with a remarkable front page upon which the statement “The freedom of the press in Hungary comes to an end”is written in 23 of the European Union’s official languages (shown left). The left-wing paper, Népszava, followed suit in protest and went to press that day with a completely blank page.

Elsewhere in Europe, the law has prompted a chorus of criticism, with strongly-worded statements already from its supposed political allies in Germany and Austria, as well as France where Mr Sarkozy’s government spokesman and Budget Minister François Baroin told France Inter radio the law was "incompatible with the application of ideas on press freedom that have been validated in European treaties".

Remaining in France, the respected daily newspaper Le Monde wrote in an editorial entitled “Hungary makes a mockery of European values how the conservative government of Orbán had adopted a number of laws which “run counter to the spirit of the European Union, which wants a democratic space and balance of powers. The new media law is one of them.” Even the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe felt sufficiently outraged by the law to say it “violates OSCE media freedom standards and endangers editorial independence and media pluralism”.

As the European Parliament gathered for its January plenary session in Strasbourg this week, the issue was always going to arise. Even beforehand, some of the Parliament’s political grouping had released fierce press statements. The ALDE liberal group president Guy Verhofstadt proclaimed "the time of Pravda is over", while the Green/ EFA group declared that "this draconian media law is an echo of Europe’s undemocratic past and we call on Commission President Barroso to launch an infringement procedure against Hungary".

Green MEPs rise a protest of Hungarian media law in the EP hemicycle during the speech of the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Wednesday 19 of January 2011 (Photo: European Parliament/Flickr/EUObserverIndeed, it was the Green group that suddenly took centre stage when the Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán entered the hemicycle to outline his country’s objectives for the forthcoming six-months. As Mr Orbán entered, a selection of MEPs rose in protest with their mouths taped shut and held up copies of Hungarian newspapers bearing the banner "censored" across the middle. The EPP grouping, to which Mr Orban’s party belongs, was far less critical, with its leader Joseph Daul saying he was "confident" that Hungary, in its response to the international criticism, would "respect the letter and spirit" of EU values.

Following the debate, Mr Orbán said in an interview with the Parliament’s media team that he "expected much worse" from the MEPs who "finally decided to express their views in a moderate way", and he insisted it would not affect how he governed his country’s EU Presidency. The Hungarian authorities have since suggested that they might be prepared to amend the media act if asked to do so following a review by the European Commission, which finds itself in a tricky position since it has power over media regulation under existing EU law.

On 5th January, the President of the Commission José Manuel Barroso, while not explicitly condemning Hungary, had argued that “media freedom is a sacred principle in the European Union” and Neelie Kroes, the Commissioner for Digital Agenda, had voiced “serious doubts” about the compatibility of the Hungarian legislation with European law. Apparently the Commission has now sent a letter to Budapest seeking information about the new legislation, to which they have a fortnight to respond or potential face a legal challenge.

But the Hungarian government have stood firm and in an official statement, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “The Government of the Republic of Hungary is steadfastly committed to carrying out the programme (sic) of the EU rotating presidency, but at the same time firmly rejects any suggestions that raise doubts about the Hungarian EU Presidency’s ability to act and suggestions of limiting the responsibilities of the presidency”. Remarkably,the Prime Minister’s spokesperson even added that "the ‘media law is European to the last bit and they would not consider changing it".

Despite German Liberal MEP Alexander Lambsdorff’s call to Orbán to "accept objective criticism of the law and not treat it as a personal attack", the Hungarian Premier was keen to stress before MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday that he is in charge, saying: "If you mix up, I’m ready to fight".

While it is extremely unlikely to turn violent, there is certainly a volatile situation brewing that if not careful will unfortunately overshadow Hungary’s Presidency of the European Union.

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